Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and second poet laureate of the United States Richard Wilbur died on October 14. In memoriam, I provide the following walk-through of his poem “The Proof,” followed by some of his reflections on the influence his Christian faith has had on his work.
“The Proof” by Richard Wilbur
Shall I love God for causing me to be?
I was mere utterance; shall these words love me?
Yet when I caused his work to jar and stammer,
And one free subject loosened all his grammar,
I love him that he did not in a rage
Once and forever rule me off the page,
But thinking I might come to please him yet,
Crossed out delete and wrote his patient stet.
This poem was originally published in the Atlantic Monthly 213, no. 3 (March 1964): 62. It can be found in Wilbur’s Collected Poems 1943–2004.
I am a proofreader by trade, so Richard Wilbur’s witty, eight-line poem “The Proof” delights me much. Filled with wordplay, it imagines God as the Cosmic Author, reviewing a set of book proofs (the typeset version of a manuscript; a still unfinal phase of production), considering a particular edit: there’s a word that’s discordant with the whole—delete it, or not?
Creative control is God’s to exercise over his manuscript of life, whose first chapter was conceived with the utterance “Let there be . . .”—light! Sky! Water! Land! Vegetation! Animals! And finally, “Let there be humankind.” Let there be Susie. Let there be Sal.
Our names belong to God’s story. He established us as characters at the very beginning. And yet he also made us “free subjects,” imbuing us with free will, with the power to follow his script or not. We decided NOT. Playing fast and loose with his “grammar” (his system of principles that make for right functions of and relationships among parts), we looked for life in all the wrong places. We introduced chaos, suffering. Now mired in this mess, we question whether or not “to be”—to exist—is a blessing or a curse.
The word “subject” in line 4 has a double meaning. First, it identifies us as being under God’s authority, as the word “rule” in the next stanza stresses. Maybe “free subject” sounds like an oxymoron, because how is it possible to be both free and subject to? Actually, our status as “free subjects” in relation to the divine has been amply teased out by moral philosophers like Kant. And before that, in the realm of politics, the term was used (without contradiction) to describe members of a state—people who submit themselves to the sovereign laws of the land, all the while possessing civil liberties. (“Citizen” has since replaced the term “free subject” in popular parlance.)
Second, a “subject” is a part of speech, an integral element of basic sentence structure. In grammar, the subject is the doer of the action. In his poem, Wilbur suggests that when we free humans do, we often do wrong. We jar God’s creation—wrench it out of harmony, destabilize it. We stammer—are repetitious in our sin. This displeases God, our author, who wonders whether, to preserve the integrity of the whole, he ought to remove us.
But God is a merciful author; he allows us to remain. In our imperfection he loves us. Even though we mar his work, he recognizes that we do add value to the story—in part, because we magnify his grace.
Stet is an industry term used by proofreaders. From the Latin for “let it stand,” it indicates that the person inputting the changes into the master document is to disregard a change that was previously marked. Continue reading “God’s patient “stet”: Richard Wilbur on divine mercy”